One of my biggest pet peeves as a Health Coach is when I see other Health Coaches promoting things like “Sugar is NOT bad for you! Stop restricting and eat everything!” Now let me explain, because I’m all for eating certain foods when they are worth it and I do think people should eat whatever makes them feel good and promotes a well rounded diet, but that is all dependent on where your body is in terms of gut and brain health. I personally believe that there is a mixed message in the nutrition world right now that is confusing people about how to approach their eating disorder recovery.
A common opinion in the health coaching and eating disorder community is the idea that you shouldn’t be restrictive about the foods you eat because it will fuel an unhealthy relationship with those foods you are avoiding and just make you binge on them more in the future. I find this so backwards as I am true believer in holistic nutrition and wellness for healing the body and mind. I don’t come across too many people in the wellness space who are confidently promoting the elimination of certain food groups as a strategy for eating disorder recovery, so I am here to do just that.
We are getting to the point in the nutrition world where it is basically impossible to argue that food is not medicine. The foods we eat directly affect our mental and physical health. Diabetes can be reversed by reducing or eliminating sugar and processed carbohydrates. Alzheimers can be prevented by eliminating gluten and other inflammatory grains and sugars. Autoimmune disease can be treated with an elimination of certain food groups depending on the type of disease. These are only a few examples, but it is becoming very clear that food is not just like medicine, food IS medicine, and sometimes elimination of certain foods is the answer. Eating disorders are also diseases of the mind and body, so why would food not be used as medicine to cure those too?
As a health coach and recovering binge eater, I am committed to teaching people how to fuel their bodies with foods that promote optimal health, and I just can’t buy into this idea that eating everything available to us without restriction (even if it’s “in moderation”) is the way to go while in the crucial first stages of eating disorder recovery. Especially since most of the sugar or processed options out there are not even REAL FOOD. They are food-like products!
I’ve felt pretty alone in my approach to eating disorder recovery for a long time, mostly because the norm out there is to not restrict any food groups, learn to eat everything in moderation, and find balance with all foods. These days, I can’t help but stray further and further away from this belief the more I learn about certain foods and their effects on our body. Now I am not a dietitian, a scientist or a therapist, but I do spend most of my waking days doing as much research about nutrition and eating disorder recovery as possible, and I feel like at this point in my life I have a pretty well rounded knowledge of it all.
To help you understand where I am coming from, let’s think back to the reason that we all have eating disorders in the first place. Think about your life. Think about all of the factors that play into your eating disorder. It is most likely some combination of media, advertising, social trends, friends, sports, your upbringing and food choices. When I think about all of those factors, at the very root of it all is the food. Now I can only speak for myself, but I am willing to bet if my parents raised me on REAL, low sugar, low carb, high fat and high protein foods, I would not have dealt with years of binge eating disorder. I bet that if sugar and processed foods didn’t exist, we would all have a much healthier relationship with our bodies because we wouldn’t be dealing with widespread weight issues and chronic illness. That could be totally wrong, but I don’t think it is. I believe that I developed this disorder because I ate a diet high in sugar and processed foods my whole life, and due to my addictive personality, I acquired an unfortunate relationship with food.
I also believe that my constant consumption of sugar and processed foods resulted in drastic shifts in my mood and emotional health. Frequent ingestion of those food-like products wreaks havoc on your gut, causing dysbiosis and inflammation. We now know that your gut and your brain are directly connected. 90% of serotonin is made in the digestive tract, so it’s no wonder that the foods we are eating directly affect our mood. I believe that my lack of nutrient dense food choices led to an unhealthy gut, which in turn led to an unhealthy mind and years of a disordered relationship with food and my body. It’s pretty point blank to me.
Now when I look at it that way, the logical route to healing an unhealthy mind would be to restore a healthy gut… am I right? Therefore, I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t want to eliminate/restrict the foods that led to my unhealthy mind in the first place.
As far as I see it, just as certain foods are medicine, sugar and processed foods are drugs. They are extremely addictive and meant to be irresistible. The food industry actually uses something called a “bliss point” when they create these food-like products to determine the perfect sweet and saltiness so you can’t just stop at one. So my question is this… If you have an addiction to sugar and processed foods, why would you not want to eliminate those foods in order to restore a healthy gut, which will then help you improve your mental health and emotional relationship with food? Cocaine addicts are never encouraged to try and use “in moderation.” Alcoholics are never advised to continue consuming any amount of alcohol when they are in recovery. If there is literally NO health benefits to refined sugar at all (there isn’t, trust me) and it will do absolutely NO good in the gut healing process, then why would any health coach encourage someone to try and not restrict it while recovering from an eating disorder where clearly there are some imbalances in the gut?
I understand that a huge part of eating disorders has nothing to do with the food at all. A lot of the healing has to come from the relationship we have with ourselves too. When you look at the science behind it though and you dive deeper into the way the body and mind are so intensely interconnected, it becomes apparent that the foods we choose to eat should be of utmost importance in the mental healing process as well.
This is why I am such an advocate of Whole30 and a low carb lifestyle in my own eating disorder recovery. (To be clear, Whole30 does not encourage anyone with an eating disorder to try the program. They advise consulting with your doctor and/or therapist before making any major diet or lifestyle changes.) Whole30 allows you to reset your body in order to begin the healing process with your gut and mind. By eliminating the problematic food groups, you are able to let your body rest, calm inflammation, and begin to restore the healthy bacteria needed to create those crucial neurotransmitters that will improve your shifting mental state. If you don’t fuel your body with all the nutrient dense foods included in the Whole30 (or other real food diet), you will be fighting an uphill battle trying to change your mindset and mental relationship with food and yourself. Food and mood are completely synergistic, therefore you must treat them together.
All of the foods I said goodbye to when I started my real food approach to recovery were the very foods I have binged on my entire life. Yes, it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Yes, it is a long and messy journey of taking two steps forward to then take one step back. But no one said recovery would be easy. In a world where we are literally surrounded by sugar on all sides, of course this is not going to be easy for those of us struggling with binge eating. But just because doing something like Whole30 is really hard does not mean that it is not the answer, and just because sugar is everywhere does not mean that we have to eat it!
When you do Whole30, you learn which foods your body responds well to, and which foods have been doing you a disservice. You also don’t eliminate those foods for forever. After the elimination time of your choice (30 days or longer), you will reintroduce those foods to see how you feel when you eat them. Whole30 teaches you to find your food freedom. To decide which foods are worth it and which foods aren’t. Just because there are donuts in the room and they are seemingly irresistible does not mean you are “too restrictive” if you don’t have one. It’s not a restrictive lifestyle if those foods make you feel like crap or cause depression or anxiety. Avoiding foods that don’t serve you well is actually living with love and freedom, not restriction. It’s freedom to choose and be in control of your health and wellbeing. It’s a form of self love and care.
For me, 30 days was not long enough to recover from my years of disordered eating. I need months of elimination, gut healing, and constant work on my food freedom. That doesn’t mean that I never eat sugar or processed foods, or that I won’t continue to eat them in the future. I’m not perfect and with an eating disorder, there will always be ups and downs. The road to recovery is not linear. I am sure though that using food as my medicine is the key to my success. The closer I get to healing my gut, the better I feel both physically and mentally. I do the best that I can to avoid all grains, sugar, soy, dairy, and alcohol. I feel amazing when I eat Whole30/Paleo/Keto and eliminating these food groups has had a direct impact on my mood and mental state. I used to be on antidepressants and still never felt as happy as I do now being off of them and eating real sugar free food.
It’s really hard to navigate these big changes without guidance, and that is why I am so thankful for Whole30. It is such a helpful resource for the accountability and support I need to succeed in my journey. Being a part of such an understanding community is a huge reason that I have made so much progress along the way. Changing a lifetime of habits is no joke and you can’t expect it to happen overnight, but with the proper nutrition and lifestyle adjustments, food freedom can be achieved.
In my opinion, the foundation of eating disorder recovery is the food. Once you make the shift to real food and heal your gut though elimination of the foods that are fueling your disorder, you can then begin to work on the mental and emotional healing. Once you have been able to reset your body and mind, THEN you can work on that whole “everything in moderation” business. It’s ok if you don’t get to that point for a while. I’m still not there and I’ve been working on it for years. It takes time. Don’t rush it. You have your whole life ahead of you. Just focus on giving your body the love and support it needs to get to a balanced and healthy space.
This is a journey, not a race.
**Disclaimer: This is just my personal opinion and my own experience with eating disorder recovery. None of these opinions are backed by scientific evidence. Although I am a certified health coach, I am not a registered dietitian or doctor. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please consult a qualified medical professional before considering any major changes to your lifestyle.
**Follow the hashtag #realfoodforrecovery on Instagram to see more of my posts about all things REAL food and eating disorder recovery.